Golden Age: A novel (Last Hundred Years Trilogy)

by Jane Smiley

(Knopf, $26.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Jane Smiley, who lives in California, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel A Thousand Acres, a modern retelling of King Lear set in Iowa farm country. She went on to write many other novels:, such as Moo (a biting satire of life at an agricultural college), Horse Heaven, Good Faith and Private Life, as well as five nonfiction books and a series for young adults. Her honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.

What is this book about?

One family; 100 years. One year; one chapter. Jane Smiley’s Iowa farm family trilogy, which opened with Some Luck and continued with Early Warning, is now completed by Golden Age: more than 1,300 pages all together, and for readers who are engrossed by this story, that is not enough. The trilogy opened on a cold and windswept  Iowa farm in 1920 and ends in an imagined 2019, populated by a sprawling family, the Langdons, who expand their footprint across the country and beyond, with some achieving fame, others fortunes and still others experiencing some bad luck, occasionally mixed with good. Their story is of course also the story of the past 100 years in America, and Smiley effectively mixes the two. The first book began with farmer Walter Langdon worrying about his land and the final book is also permeated with worries about the health of farmland and the health of the land in its larger meaning as the country itself. Characters introduced earlier play out their lives in ways both expected and surprising. You can read this book as a standalone, but I recommend you begin at the beginning with Some Luck and follow this saga of American life through all three volumes.

Why you’ll like it:

Happy Thanksgiving! Here is a book that celebrates family life in all its comforting and frustrating realities, peopled by characters that struggle but mostly survive. If you immerse yourself in its three volumes, you will feel you have come to know a group of real people, and without doubt some of them will touch you in unexpected ways. Smiley can be compared to such classic authors as Dickens and contemporary stars as Louise Erdrich for her ability to create memorable, unpredictable and believable characters. As winter comes on, those looking for a long but satisfying read will find it in Smiley’s bountiful trilogy.

What others are saying:

The Chicago Tribune says: “To most novelists, the prospect of writing a trilogy that spans an entire century might have seemed outrageously ambitious, if not downright foolhardy. But Jane Smiley is not most novelists. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author didn’t simply rise to the multiple challenges of the multigenerational family saga. In the trilogy—which concludes with Golden Age—Smiley tells not only the story of an American family, but also the story of America itself. Set on a farm in Iowa and, as various members of the Langdon clan spread out, throughout the country and the world, The Last Hundred Years finds the family buffeted by change, including war, economic ups and downs, shifts in the culture and practice of farming, politics and a variety of other factors. At the same time, the way the characters interact with history is indivisible from the way they interact with each other, which is inextricably bound up with family dynamics and the mystery of human personality.”

“Ambitious, absorbing, rich in detail . . . In this final installment of her Last Hundred Years trilogy, Smiley wraps up the story of an Iowa farm family, with branches stretching to California and Chicago and New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Golden Age opens in 1987 [and] ends in a fraught 2019. Smiley allows plenty of room to incisively explore both sides of the increasingly bitter American political divide. She builds an unsparing portrait of a country seared by change and tempered by humanity, a place that tests and tries the Langdons, but never quite breaks them . . . Golden Age flows with the nuances and rhythms of everyday life, with time passing steadily, through births and deaths, triumph and tragedy. Smiley’s prose is precise but spare; she doesn’t need histrionics to wring your heart or make it sing. She only needs a few simple sentences . . . The book’s structure allows her to hone in on the historical events through the eyes of people about whom we care, and she builds unexpected joys and alliances into their remarkable and ordinary lives . . . Smiley lays out the dangers, daring us to ignore them at our own peril. But Golden Age is not downbeat; it puts our existence into perspective . . . In the wild, unpredictable, precious ride of life, we can still find moments to savor,” says The Miami Herald.

“With Golden Age, Smiley wraps up her sweeping, cumulatively absorbing American epic—as expansive and ambitious in its way as Balzac’s Human Comedy and John Updike’s Rabbit quartet . . . References to historical benchmarks anchor the novel in time. But what captivates are the unfolding lives of characters who share DNA and a fraying connection to their agrarian roots . . . Smiley’s plot is a marvel of intricacy that’s full of surprises. Her view of old age and, especially, old love, are unexpectedly sweet. [The] trilogy demonstrates repeatedly that most lives are a combination of improvisation and serendipity, good luck and bad. With issues such as corruption, climate disruption and racism blighting the country’s horizon, her characters wonder if the golden age is behind them. But Claire, the last surviving child of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, reflects on the bright spots of her 80 years, [making] her realize that ‘all golden ages, perhaps, were discovered within’ . . . A satisfying finale to a monumental portrait of an American family and an American century,” says the Los Angeles Times.

Booklist’s starred review says: “With Golden Age, Smiley grandly concludes her Last Hundred Years trilogy, a multigenerational saga about an Iowa farm family. In each novel, Smiley has subtly yet pointedly linked forces political, technological, financial, and social to personal lives, tracing in the most organic, unobtrusive, yet clarifying manner the enormous changes that have taken place over the last century . . . Smiley revels in the blissfulness of being, celebrating the glory of horses, the good company of dogs, the sweet astonishment of quickening life and newborn babies, the sheltering intimacy of a loving marriage, the pleasure of solitude . . . She sustains an enthralling narrative velocity and buoyancy, punctuated with ricocheting dialogue, as she creates a spectacular amplitude of characters, emotions, and events. Sensuousness, dread, recognition, shock, sorrow, mischievous humor, revelation, empathy—all are generated by fluid, precisely calibrated prose, abiding connection to the terrain she maps, fascination with her characters, and command of the nuances of the predicaments. Each novel is a whole and vital world in its own right, and together the three stand as a veritable cosmos as Smiley makes brilliant use of the literary trilogy—the ideal form for encompassing the breadth and depth of our brash, glorious, flawed, precious country . . . Smiley’s cantering, far-reaching, yet intimate trilogy is both timely in the issues it so astutely raises (especially as Iowa is once again in the presidential election spotlight), and timeless in the rapture of its storytelling and the humanness of its insights into family, self, and our connection to the land. Readers will be reading, and rereading, Smiley’s Last Hundred Years far into the next.”

When is it available?

Golden Age should be available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library by Dec. 4. Early Warning and Some Luck are at the Downtown Library, and Some Luck is also at the Mark Twain branch,.

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